8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

Ten Writing Commandments

I’m in a cliché sort of mood today and since I don’t want to burden the novel I intend to work on this afternoon with clichés, I’m afraid I’m going to burden you with them instead. Behold, my Ten Writing Commandments, predictably humorously written in a crude approximation of ‘King James English’ and with helpful expositions of each rule.

Most of these rules are as old as the hills and are probably familiar to you. I am not, for one second, claiming to have invented any of these rules. However, this is a compilation of ten writing precepts, from a variety of sources, that I have found to be particularly useful to me. I should add that the expositions I have included are all my own.

So, without further ado…

1. Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell.

This is what separates quality prose from a technical manual. Allow me to demonstrate with an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

‘They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans…’ (emphasis mine).

This is a well written line. Rather than telling you what happened, it uses imagery to allow the reader to experience for themselves the sight of two men, stuffing their faces with beans.

Here is what that exact same passage might look like if it was all telling and no showing:

‘They sat by the fire and ate lots of beans.’

Exactly the same thing is happening here but it fails to capture the gluttony of the ravening men. The reader is not transported to the fireside to witness the feast of beans. We are simply informed. Boring!

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee unrealistic goals.

Be honest with yourself about what it is possible to achieve. A thousand words a day seems like a small goal, but after only one year, you will have 365,000 words; that’s a trilogy of novels, all because you succeeded in reaching your daily goal. But if you set yourself a goal of 10,000 words a day and fail to meet it, you will never complete anything.

Slow and steady wins the race (I haven’t got these clichés out of my system just yet)!

3. Thou shalt remove all distractions.

I’m looking at you, Facebook. Get rid of anything that might distract your attention. TV, internet, chattering relatives, the lot. Focus solely on achieving the goal you have set for yourself that day. If you find yourself prone to a wandering mind, allow yourself regular but carefully timed breaks to do all the other little things you need/want to do… but when it’s writing time, it’s writing time.

4. Thou shalt not use words in vain.

Waffle is no fun to read… so why it write it?

Oh, I see… you want to ‘pad out’ your story to reach your word limit, so you’re thinking of adding in lots of unnecessary words to make your sentences longer? Well, don’t. All that does is breaks up the flow of your story. Take this phrase for example: ‘The brightly shining sun…’

There are four words in that phrase, two of which (‘brightly’ and ‘shining’) are superfluous. The reader doesn’t need you to tell them that the sun is shining brightly, because the sun always shines brightly by its very nature. It’s never dull or dark. The noun ‘sun’ naturally conjures images of bright shininess all by itself. If the sun was shining dimly for some reason, then an adverb might just come in handy!

If in doubt, remember the rule that every word and sentence you write ought to help the story to progress. Don’t tell the reader what they already know or do not need to know.

5. Thou shalt know thine audience.

Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to think about the commercial side of writing, knowing your intended audience is the only way to know exactly what to write. No story, no matter how well written, will suit everybody; therefore, it must suit somebody. It is only possible to reliably accomplish this if you know in advance who that somebody is.

6. Thou shalt write regularly and often.

Some say you have to write every single day or you are doomed to fail. I think that’s a slight exaggeration but the principle is sound. Depending on your circumstances, it might be more appropriate to write seven, six or five days a week but what really matters is that you get into a habit of writing often (because believe me, good writers practice their craft) and at regular set times to help you avoid distraction. Not only this, but having a regular writing time means you will also have a regular ‘clocking off’ time – because writing every hour God sends is no healthier than being at any other job 24/7.

7. Thou shalt write swiftly…

Planner or pantser, the same applies to both of you: when it comes to writing, the best thing you can do is to make sure words are constantly appearing on the page without stopping to improve (or worse, delete) what you’ve just written. This is not the time for editing or second-guessing yourself. Get your story down in all its dreadful badness. A bad story can become a good story, but nothing won’t become anything. If you really can’t bring yourself to do it, join an archaeology expedition and try to dig up an old typewriter and write your story on that instead.

8. … and thou shalt edit slowly.

Having said that, you still want your story to be perfect. So, once you’ve got your story written down, go over it with a fine tooth comb. Analyse it carefully and in detail; word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Find whatever stylistic or grammatical problems there may be and do not rest until they have all been resolved to your satisfaction.

9. Thou shalt retain professional detachment from everything you write.

What I mean by this is that no part of your story – words, sentences, metaphors, word-play, characters, plot twists or anything else – should be safe from being changed or completely deleted as necessary. What matters is the story. This is especially important for writers of speculative fiction who feel the need to explain every intricate detail of how their fantasy world functions. You as the writer might be very excited about what you’ve created, but the truth is, the reader is not. The reader is looking for a story, so don’t go off on long tangents.

The same is true, however, even in non-speculative fiction. Perhaps you have written some really powerful dialogue or the perfect fight scene… but they have no real function in your story. They will need to go. Therefore, do not become overly attached to anything you have create or else when you come to edit, it will be like having one hand tied behind your back.

10. Thou shalt break these commandments as ye see fit.

I mentioned at the beginning that these were ten rules that I have found to be useful to me personally. The truth is, I’ve come across dozens of books and websites claiming that ‘this, that or the other’ is the most important rule to follow in writing but really… there are successful writers who follow one set of rules and there are those who do the exact opposite. Some write daily; some do not. Some plan; some pants. I remember once on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a particular character commented that you can only write about what you have experienced… which got me wondering what planet (literally) the writers of Star Trek were living on. I’ve said it several times today and I’ll say it again: what matters is your story.

If the only way you know to get words on the page is to do the opposite of everything I’ve written here, then do it with my blessing. Rules are made to be broken.

A Fight Scene Worth Reading

We all know (instinctively at least) that conflict, of one kind or another, is at the core of every good story. Whatever the protagonist’s goal may be– to get the girl/boy, to vanquish evil or simply to get through the day in one piece –there is always something or someone who will seek to prevent it from happening. In fiction, as in life, conflict between two characters often leads to fisticuffs. It can be an exciting moment in your story where the tension finally erupts and your audience are beside themselves with anticipation of what the outcome will be… Or it can be tedious, pedestrian, predictable and downright boring.

I am thinking particularly of fight scenes in novels, short stories and other forms of written fiction, since fight scenes in film and theatre are (at least to some extent) more a matter of choreography than writing. As a reader, I often find that even in the best books, it is badly written fight scenes that can really ruin my enjoyment of the story, whether it’s a quick wrestling match between two minor characters or an epic battle between ten vast armies of elves, dragons, wizards and goblins. It’s not that I think fight scenes are unimportant (sometimes they’re necessary) or unexciting (well-written ones can be thrilling); they’re just difficult to get right.

So, first things first. Ask yourself if you really need a fight scene. If it doesn’t help the story to move forward in some concrete way then the answer is probably ‘no’. Some reasons you might want to include a fight scene include:

  • You need to kill off a character (‘need’ being the operative word; only kill a character off if it is necessary to help the story progress)
  • You need to release tension between two characters and create a turning point in their relationship. Although it might not be a good philosophy to live your real life by, physical altercations in fiction often help to clear the air between two characters. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Family’, Captain Picard and his brother have a constant simmering tension between the two of them until they have a good old punch-up in the middle of the vineyard. Alternatively, a fight could change your characters’ relationship from restrained dislike to open enmity.
  • Organised violence might be a central part of the story. For example, The Hunger Games centres around an annual televised battle to the death; thus, characters are expected to fight. War and spy novels are also likely to include such fights where violence is ‘just part of the job’, rather than personal.

If you’ve decided that you’ve got no choice and that you must include a fight scene, there’s a few things you should be aware of. You probably know the first commandment of writing: ‘Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell’. Well, if you’ve ever tried to write a fight scene for a novel or short story, you probably know that it is blooming difficult to write a fight scene and fully observe this rule. Even in written fiction, a good fight still needs to be ‘choreographed’: each character moving to attack, defend and respond to the other characters movements. It’s difficult to accomplish this in words without resorting to a simple description of who attacked who and how, and for this reason I would be inclined to keep it as short as possible and keep the technical details to an absolute minimum. Even though it might lack the details of who struck who and how, this will help to preserve the excitement and pace of your fight scene. What you really want to capture is the sense of chaos and brutality involved. Which of these do you think is the most exciting?

Enough was enough. Willy had really done it this time and John was going to teach him a lesson he would never forget. He reached back with his right hand and punched Willy squarely in the nose, drawing blood from his nostrils. Willy said, ‘Ow! Why did you do that man?’ and clumsily karate chopped John’s left shoulder with his right hand.

or

Something snapped inside John. His hand flew towards Willy and touched his nose with a crunch. Blood was on his hand and all over Willy’s shirt. Spluttering with fury, Willy launched himself towards John, his hands launching out aimlessly.

Another thing to consider is the thoughts the protagonist who is involved in this fight. Internal dialogue allows you to maintain that character-driven quality which separates a good story from a boring one and it also helps to break up tedious descriptions. However, beware! In a fight, it is unlikely that characters have time for long drawn out and complex thoughts. The pace of the scene must still be maintained. For example,

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. A karate chop? Really? What did he think this was, a ’60s TV drama? Doesn’t he realise that in the battle for life and death, one must keep a cool head or else they will be overcome by their rage and will surely be defeated? This is just like that time in high school when I got into a fight with Tom over some girl we both fancied. Gosh, what was her name again? I can’t even remember, I just remember how embarrassed I felt for him, even as we were fighting.

That’s too much internal dialogue for a fight scene. I don’t care if your character is the most introspective and reflective of all God’s creatures; there is supposed to be a fight happening while he’s having these thoughts. Writing lengthy internal dialogue like this makes it seem like either 1) the fight has been temporarily postponed for a moment of reflection or 2) John has become so consumed by his own thoughts that he doesn’t realise Willy is now bludgeoning him to death with a hammer. Instead, something like this would be more appropriate:

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. His rage was his weakness.

See how much shorter that is – and yet it communicates almost exactly the same idea: John’s confidence that he will triumph over Willy because Willy is ruled by his emotions.

Ultimately, a fight scene is like any other part of your story: it is there to move the plot along by what your characters do and think and say. The reason fight scenes are so tricky is that they are such complicated physical acts with very little rational thinking or dialogue involved and it is easy to make them boring. The bottom line, then, is that fight scenes should be used as sparingly as possible and be sure to keep them snappy. Only include what is necessary and as far as possible, focus on the characters as people rather than a technical blow-by-blow account of the action itself. A good fight scene should be like a pressure valve; quickly and decisively releasing the tension which has already been building up for a long time. Get it right and your reader won’t be able to put your book down, at least for a few more pages.

 

Presenting Your Characters’ Backstories

I was recently sitting at home with my wife when it occurred to me that if one of my schoolmates (whom I haven’t seen in years) hadn’t gone on holiday to Spain in 2002, I would never have got married more than a decade later. You see, he went on holiday with his family in 2002 and befriended a girl there (not my wife) and some time after this, he introduced me to her. A few years later, I got a job in town and started going out with the girl my friend met on holiday. I would often go to see her straight from work, using a shortcut which took me past a particular college (I didn’t know this college existed before then). I eventually split up with the girl my friend met on holiday so many years before, but a while after this I decided to study at the aforementioned college that I had discovered while taking the shortcut to see my now ex-girlfriend. At that college, I met another girl who was working in the canteen: she who is now my wife.

A leads to B which leads to C, all the way up to Z and beyond. This is what happens in real life. In fiction, this needs to be compressed into a backstory. Where did your character come from? Who influenced them as he was growing up and throughout his life up until this point? And most importantly of all: what is that defining moment in their past that made them who they are today?

For example, like most superheroes, Spider-Man’s goal is to stop the bad guy(s), protect the innocent and generally save the day. He is motivated to do this by the belief that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. However, this belief didn’t just pop into his head. He learnt this lesson in his very first comic book appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (and subsequent re-imaginings of the same story), when he refused to use his powers to stop a criminal — only for that same criminal to murder his uncle. This single event lies behind everything Spider-Man does from that moment on, even if it is not explicitly mentioned. It is a defining moment in Spider-Man’s life that changed him from a selfish lad who was only interested in using his powers to make money into the crime-fighting hero he became.

The same goes for bad guys. Something made them who they are today. Darth Vader, for instance, wasn’t always a heavy-breathing, Force-choking Sith. Even before the prequel trilogy came out, it is stated that at one point he was a Jedi who was ‘seduced by the Dark Side’ (Return of the Jedi). The prequel trilogy shows us several events in his life which arguably contributed to his conversion into the Sith Lord we know and love from the original trilogy, but the key moment comes in Revenge of the Sith, when he has a vision of his wife dying in childbirth and is convinced by Darth Sidious that he can ‘cheat death’ by joining the Dark Side. However, even if the prequel trilogy had never happened (I’m sure there are many who wish that it were so), there would still remain this implied critical moment in Darth Vader’s life when he became the man in the shiny black helmet (in fact, the very fact that he has to wear all that cybernetic equipment just to keep him alive implies an exciting backstory by itself).

So, backstories clearly are vital parts of characterisation. But now that we (as authors) know them, how do we present them to the reader?

Give It To Us Straight

I think some authors get so excited about the character they’ve created that they just can’t bear to only show you a single portion of their life. Not when they’ve created such a great backstory! And so, instead of implying a backstory, they will give you the full biography of the character they’ve created from the day they were born. Everything is made explicit. Every. Tedious. Detail.

If you must do this, the best approach is probably to try to limit yourself to that key event (for instance, the death of Spider-Man’s uncle) and do not try to cram it all into the first page. Give it to us in dribs and drabs and only as much as is absolutely necessary. For instance, let’s pretend I was writing a Spider-Man story (I’m not, by the way!). My first couple of pages could be devoted to explaining in some detail how Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider, gained super powers, used his powers selfishly at first, let a crook escape, lost his uncle as a result and decided to become a superhero as a result… but I wouldn’t hold my reader’s attention for long. It would suffice in the opening pages to hint at a tragedy and maybe a sense of guilt felt by the protagonist but nothing more until later.

If the backstory is very complicated and really needs a long-winded narrative, then I suppose you could always tell it in the form of flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative, but personally, I hate excessive flashbacking. If the backstory is that important and that complicated that you are considering flashbacks, you might want to consider…

Prequels

Prequels are all the rage. Gotham, Hannibal Rising, Legends of Dune, The Magician’s Nephew, Endeavour, the aforementioned Star Wars prequel and the last few offerings from the Star Trek franchise all give us detailed backstories in the form of a completely separate book/film/show/etc.

The benefits to doing this are obvious: you can present your character’s backstory in all its glorious splendour with the full narrative form that it deserves.

The downside is that if you’re writing an entirely separate narrative, you’ll still need backstories for your backstory, since your prequel is a story in its own right. Darth Vader (or Anakin Skywalker, as he was then known) might have only been nine years old in The Phantom Menace, but even at that stage, he had a backstory; he and his mother were slaves of Watto and that he was believed to have been conceived by the Force. It is also worth remembering that just because you plan to tell the backstory in the form of a separate prequel, that backstory must still exist and be implied within the main story itself. Writing a prequel is no replacement for a detailed and well presented backstory in the main story.

Imply Your Backstory (The Best Way)

We return, then, to the age old adage of good writing: show; don’t tell. Don’t write anywhere in your Spider-Man novel (note: please do not write a Spider-Man novel) that he once let a criminal escape and that criminal shot his uncle. Instead, show me a tragic hero who is climbing walls and spinning webs to try and make up for a mistake he made years ago; a mistake that is gnawing away at his insides; a regret so profound that it would drive him insane if he didn’t wear a mask and risk his life every day to wage a one-man war on crime. Keep me turning pages in the hopes that I might glean the backstory based on what is still haunting his thoughts and influencing his actions today. The more you reveal without stating it explicitly, the better your writing will be.

If you ask me, this is nearly always the best way to present a backstory effectively. Giving explicit descriptions of what happened in a character’s past is not only cumbersome, it also answers most of the reader’s questions too quickly. Writing a prequel might be fun (some of them are even very good), but if you don’t know your protagonist’s backstory when you come to write your main story, you’ll still end up with a shallow and lifeless character, because real people don’t just pop out of the ground fully formed. The circumstances of their lives are defined by what has happened before. Therefore, you as the author must know – and show that you know – what has happened to bring your character to this point if you want to create a believable person.